April 2013

The Nation Reviewed

The sport of killing leaders

By Waleed Aly

The Death of Caesar (1867), Jean-Léon Gérôme. Image courtesy of the Walters Arts Museum.

Hollow the leader

There’s an old Jewish prophecy that, as end times approach, history will speed up. Surveying the Australian political landscape, it seems Armageddon must be nigh. Events move in fast forward. The chaotic frenzy of our age, in which leaders are culled the moment a whiff of electoral defeat is in the air, economic stability notwithstanding, is unprecedented.

In the space of three years, three first-term heads of government – a prime minister, a premier and a chief minister – have been ejected by their own parties. For all the political mileage the federal Coalition has extracted from Kevin Rudd’s brutal removal, this is no partisan phenomenon. Ted Baillieu’s resignation in Victoria last month only came because the Liberal party room no longer supported him. And neither Rudd’s nor Baillieu’s demise seems as bloody-minded as Terry Mills’s axing in the Northern Territory, executed as it was while he was in Japan on official business, only a week after he had stared down a challenge from his Country Liberal Party colleagues.

In each case, we can identify direct triggers. For Rudd it was his dumping of the emissions trading scheme (ETS), which saw his approval ratings, and Labor’s, nosedive. For Baillieu it was a rogue MP’s resignation from the Liberal Party, and his chief of staff’s involvement in what at least looked like jobs-for-the-boys behaviour, as well as a series of poor polls. For Mills, it was the complete collapse of public support for his government – including a poll showing Mills had lost around 23% of the vote in his own seat – after large rises in electricity and water prices.

To cite these as explanations misses the point. Governments have faced crises before. They have pursued unpopular policies, and dealt with stubbornly bad polls. The failures are not new, but the speed and savagery of the consequences are. Rudd lasted just over two and a half years in office. Baillieu, just under. Mills, an astonishing seven months.

At least three things flow from this. First, political crises come swiftly, far more swiftly than in any previous era. Second, political parties more quickly assume such crises cannot be remedied, at least not in time for the next election. And third, they think the only way to salvage the situation is to replace the leader.

The new media landscape clearly has much to answer for here. Crisis is swift because news and commentary are swift and judgement is instant. Then it’s shared, constantly, and mostly with those who agree. Viewpoints become amplified rather than nuanced. So we forestall cool, reflective debate, and wind up with a public conversation that has almost no ability to persuade. Everyone’s in a war, everyone has a gun, and we’d much rather go on firing than sit through dull peace negotiations.

Political discussion has become a militarised zone. Perhaps that’s why parties are increasingly reaching for the nuclear option. As the debate gets faster and therefore shallower, our politics must become more presidential because image and personality are the only effective weapons left. This is particularly true given the collapse of serious ideological difference between the major parties. Every political problem therefore becomes a leadership problem. When you’re confronted with political disaster, there’s only one thing to do: get new leadership.

As Gillard’s experience shows, there’s no guarantee that change will work. The problems of contemporary politics are far bigger than that. In this connection, Baillieu and Rudd make an instructive comparative study: despite sharing the same fate, they are profoundly contrasting figures. Rudd is widely despised within his own party; his leadership style was unbearable to many of his colleagues and could be tolerated only as long as he had Newspoll in his corner. Baillieu remains liked as a man by colleagues and journalists alike. To follow the news coverage of his resignation was to be reminded every few moments that he is a “decent” bloke. Rudd is maniacally ambitious and hyperactive; Baillieu is aloof, indecisive and frequently passionless.

Rudd was everywhere. As Opposition leader he dismantled John Howard because his ravenous appetite for media engagement was so suited to our media-drenched age. In government, this caught up with him. His was a government of endless “announceables”. Initiatives poured from his office, but with no follow-through. There was an apology, a stimulus package, then a dizzying array of ideas – a dumped ETS, a maligned mining tax, a failed health take-over – that confused more than they inspired. Rudd governed as though the political cycle was the same thing as the 24-hour media cycle. He just couldn’t keep up with his own announcements.

Ted Baillieu didn’t even try. He belonged to a completely different era. You can imagine him taking three months out over summer to read, perhaps aboard a ship bound for England. He and his ministers frequently declined media requests. At first this seemed to be part of a strategy to lie low for the first year while his team – who were as surprised as anyone to find themselves in government in 2010 – figured out what they were going to do. But the invisibility lingered for a second year. Baillieu opted out of the media frenzy, and wouldn’t opt in even as scandal engulfed his own office.

This low-key approach is more affordable to the second tier of government, but even so Baillieu overdid it. When he announced the end of his premiership, the response was very much “So long, Ted Baillieu; we hardly knew ye.”

The stories of these two utterly contrasting leaders, both brought undone by the relentless waves of digital information that define our world, raise a frightening question of contemporary politics: can anyone shine in the top job? If not Rudd with his unceasing media engagement, and not Baillieu with his apparently deliberate disengagement, then who?

Certainly each man had failures of leadership. But is ours an age that will not be led? Is our political and media cycle so unforgiving, so instant and so damn loud that it punishes those who play the game as much as those who don’t?

Colin Barnett might think not, after his serene victory in Western Australia last month. In many ways he’s the middle ground between Rudd and Baillieu: the quiet achiever whose image is of getting things done with a minimum of fuss. But then, his state has seen massive economic growth in recent years. His opposition is inept, and is of the same party as a prime minister so disliked in the west that she was asked not to cross the state line lest she contaminate the state Labor campaign. This is hardly a replicable model for political success.

It’s early days, but it would seem the rapid, shallow brutality of our political conversation reflects a coarsening and hollowing out of our very public culture: a culture of more judgement and less restraint, of sanctimony unearnt through reflection, of instant rhetorical gratification. We need a new pact, but we have no brokers.

Waleed Aly

Waleed Aly is a writer, broadcaster and academic.

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